Sunday, September 14, 2008


If the know-nothings had their way, America would be deprived of the contributions of hard workers, innovators, and geniuses

In 2007 a political firestorm erupted when Arizona Senator John McCain sponsored a bill which would have given retroactive amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants to the United States as part of a comprehensive plan to regain control of our borders. Backtracking faster than an NFL defensive back, McCain not only withdrew support for his own bill (he voted against it!), he later disavowed any connection to the idea of crafting legislation that wouldn't pass muster with the irrational xenophobes of his party. The magic words changed from "amnesty" and "registration" to "virtual fences"and "mass deportations." This wasn't McCain's first effort at real reform of our immigration laws- in May of 2005, McCain and Senator Ted Kennedy proposed the "Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act "(S. 1033), which also went down in flames.

Although Senators McCain (now a proud "conservative maverick for change," an oxymoron if ever there was one) and Kennedy (the most liberal Senator of his era) would appear to be strange bedfellows on this issue or any other, the oddest political fact is that the prime mover for immigration reform was President George W. Bush. The answer to this seeming conundrum- why would they be on the same side of this legislation?- is very simple: Senator Kennedy for reasons of social justice and rational economics; President Bush and Senator McCain because their real constituency-- large businesses, including agri-businesses-- really, really needs and likes having a ready pool of hard working, non-complaining, low paid labor.

But the Republicans' nominal constituency-- jingoistic, red meat eating, unemployed or underemployed angry victims of Bush economics-- strongly and loudly opposed any thought of amnesty, which was a cornerstone of the 2005 and 2007 bills. Recognizing political reality- if they couldn't sneak this one by the only voters who are foolish enough to consistently keep on voting for those who have done the most to wreak havoc on their jobs (disappearing abroad) and their homes (record setting foreclosures and bankruptcies), then they would have to ditch the idea until they could get a Democratic Congress to pass it, then lay the blame on "liberals."

But suppose we could wave a magic wand and all immigrants and descendants of immigrants would disappear from the United States. Who'd be left? Obviously, nobody, because even the Native Americans came across the Bering Strait when it was a land bridge from Siberia about 30,000 years ago, during the last ice age. The simple fact is that this continent was populated by immigrants and this nation was founded by immigrants. Unlike almost every other nation in the world, from the moment of its birth in 1776, this country has celebrated and honored the immigrants who were its bedrock. The Statue of Liberty is not holding up a "Stop" sign, and the plaque at its base inscribed with Emma Lazarus' poem doesn't tell foreigners to go back where they came from:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

My paternal great grandparents and my maternal grandparents came to this country as immigrants looking for a better life- for an opportunity to work and to live as equals in this New World. They were among the millions who voluntarily suffered the hardships of cross-Atlantic travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (my grandmother was 12 and orphaned, speaking no English, when she landed in Boston in 1905). In college I wrote a history paper about the German Jewish immigrants to Philadelphia in the 19th century, checking census records, cemeteries, synagogue membership rolls, and other data. It was fascinating to discover the myriad places from which they came, the occupations they entered, and the lives they touched once they arrived here in the early 1800's. Almost without fail they contributed greatly to society, and their descendants and the descendants of their fellow immigrants became the leading lights of their new country.

No rational, knowledgeable American could ever deny the incredible contributions that immigrants of every stripe contribute to every institution which matters- small business, large business, mining, manufacturing, finance, science, the military, the arts, sports, even government. Whether we are talking about athletes like Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash (the South African born Canadian won two consecutive MVP's a couple of years ago) or Seattle baseball icon Ichiro (Japan), governors like Michigan's Jennifer Granholm (Canada) or California's famous Arnold Schwarzenegger (Austria), Nobel Prize winning scientists like Albert Einstein (Germany) , or top generals such as Rick Sanchez (top commander in Iraq, of Mexican heritage) or John Shalikashvili (former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, born in the country of Georgia and grew up in Poland), it is indisputable that we still enjoy the fruits of the magnetic attraction this country holds for those living abroad who want a better life.

So what do we do about the current immigration "crisis?" First, it's important to note that there is no crisis. That alarm is simply another fantasy of the rabid right wing know-nothings of this country who cling to power only by quadrennially exciting the fears, anger, and hatred of "Real Americans" towards anyone who exhibits the slightest difference from the norm. But what about all of the illegal Mexicans who swarm across our border looking to land on welfare rolls, use our hospitals, and collect Social Security? Answer: another myth. When asked: "On balance, what effect has twentieth-century immigration had on the nation's economic growth?" of 38 persons who had been president of the American Economic Association, as well as those who had been members of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, 81 percent answered "Very favorable" and 19 percent answered "Slightly favorable." None said that immigration was unfavorable. Their statistics are borne out by casual observation and anecdotal evidence: there is no institution or program in this country which is suffering because of illegal immigrants, including welfare rolls, because most illegals are too frightened at deportation to risk getting into the system.

So if we want to cut off our collective noses to spite our faces, we should round up every illegal immigrant, deport him or her, and spend billions of dollars on additional border patrol and real and virtual fences on the southern border . (Strangely, except for several hundred Canadian actors who have become Hollywood success stories, i.e. Pamela Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lorne Greene ("Ben Cartwright of Bonanza), Art Linkletter, Howie Mandel (Deal or No Deal), Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live producer), Mike Myers (Austin Powers), Seth Rogan (knocked up), and William Shatner (Star Trek), Canadians aren't beating down our doors to gain entrance to this country.) But if we remain calm, rational, and self interested, we will simplify immigration procedures and eliminate absurd requirements such as requiring illegals (some of whom have been here for decades since they were small children) to get on a plane back to a country of which they have no living memory and wait for months to obtain an entrance visa. Because the people who made this country great weren't 8th generation Americans. The bedrocks of this country were the first and second generation Americans who understood the importance of getting an education, working hard, and appreciating the freedoms we have here which are so scarce elsewhere.


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